The transformation of Silverstone

The ‘Home of British Motor Sport’ is going through a transformation, one which its architects hope will secure a place on the F1 calendar for years to come. Damien Smith meets track MD Stuart Pringle to hear plans that will make our own GP a ‘Super Bowl’ event

F1 Grand Prix of Great Britain
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Every time you visit Silverstone something’s changed. Trundle up Dadford Road from the A43 and on the right Aston Martin’s mammoth new Formula 1 factory is morphing into reality. On the left Silverstone Park, now overflowing on the other side of the road too, bristles with thriving businesses. By the main entrance, the old aircraft hangar’s metamorphosis into the Silverstone Interactive Museum is complete. And opposite event space The Wing, the hotel that has always been sorely lacking nears completion, linked to the paddock building by an enclosed footbridge over the start/finish. Somehow, it all still feels like Silverstone – but transport yourself back 20 years. The old airfield is barely recognisable.

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A 1971 view of Silverstone – still looking like a former RAF airfield

A new sense of self-esteem, as if the place has rediscovered the confidence to match its self-styled and unarguable soubriquet as ‘The Home of British Motor Sport’. Silverstone is a venue, finally, we can be proud of.

Stuart Pringle certainly feels that way, fiercely so of both the place and the dedicated team who work tirelessly to run it. We meet the managing director in the Jimmy Brown Centre, formerly the press room over the ‘old’ pits, now the nerve centre of Silverstone operations. Outside, the buzz of another busy track day provides a muted and soothing soundtrack, as Pringle settles down to reveal the exciting new plans for the British Grand Prix, the ‘halo’ event around which everything at Silverstone has been created.

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Stuart Pringle, MD at Silverstone Circuits, who is bringing a more festival-like atmosphere to the British GP

For all the healthy glow, what a time it’s been at the old track. Pringle led protracted negotiations for a new, and finally fair, deal to secure the British GP – although as we later reflect that’s coming around again soon, given the contract only runs until 2024. Then there was the disastrous relaying of the circuit that led to the painful cancellation of the 2018

MotoGP, and the pressure and expense of getting the new surface right at a second time of asking. Then the pandemic struck, shutting everything down. But as Pringle reflects, Silverstone emerged with credit, hosting back-to-back behind-closed-doors grands prix during 2020, before welcoming a delirious public last year to a race that was an early totem of the UK opening back up for business.

It pulled it off safely too, Pringle revealing just 598 Covid-positive cases were recorded out of a weekend crowd topping 350,000.

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Despite the huge crowd at Silverstone in 2021 –350,000 over the weekend – there were fewer than 600 Covid cases

“Covid reminded me how powerful Silverstone is,” he says. “Perhaps we lost our confidence as a business towards the latter end of the Ecclestone years. We’d taken such a beating for so long we genuinely believed we weren’t as good as modern ‘fandango’ circuits. Actually we just put on a good motor race every year. There’s seldom a duffer.”

That’s not to say he’s complacent – quite the opposite. As F1 and Liberty Media ride the still-rising wave of the Netflix boom, Silverstone is also scooping the benefits of grand prix racing’s unprecedented popularity. But it brings new pressures. The stakes have been raised. Liberty expects each race to be of “Super Bowl” proportions and even traditional ‘grandee’ races such as the British must step up. It’s why Pringle paid a visit to the first Miami GP in May, to inform him of what Silverstone must do – and just as importantly must not – if it is to strengthen its hand in the next round of contract negotiations.

So what did he make of Miami? “Contrary to the kicking they got in certain quarters of the press, I thought the promoter did a really good job,” says Pringle. “The chief operating officer, Tyler Epp, was extremely generous with his time and gave us two hours on Saturday. We went everywhere, all corners.

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The crowds returned in 2021

I know there was a bit of leg-pulling over the fake marina, but actually it got everybody talking. It was a real focal point and it looked quite fun. We went to learn from American sport because it’s better at selling itself. We’ve been doing this for 70 years but we are not above learning things from new people, and actually recognising we are better at certain elements than they are.”

He watched the race from a public grandstand to soak up the atmosphere, but isn’t a great fan of street tracks. “You can’t beat a proper circuit for a proper race. As my 15-year-old said to me the other day, ‘Dad, I don’t reckon we’ll see the true potential of these new cars until they come to Silverstone, because they clearly can follow and it will be like MotoGP. I reckon we’ll get two or three overtakes a lap.’ He might be right.”

But what did Pringle learn that he can bring back to Silverstone? “We know we’ve got the heritage and a great track, and a knowledgeable crowd in vast numbers. From F1’s own survey we also know we offer the greatest customer satisfaction of all promoters.

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Famous faces at the Miami Grand Prix in May, which Pringle visited, from left, Lewis Hamilton, Michael Jordan, David Beckham and Tom Brady

But there are clear pressure points that are important for F1. I wanted to be in Miami to see what a Super Bowl event looks like. Las Vegas will be another next year and we’ve got to recognise that [element] is important to this ownership structure of F1. So how can we replicate what we have seen in Miami?”

If alarm bells are ringing, never fear. Stuart Pringle is a former club secretary of the Vintage Sports-Car Club, after all. “I don’t want to do it in an American fashion,” he says. “I have a personal aversion to Britain subsuming American culture, so I want to give them what they want in our own unique, distinct way.

“I want our core audience to say, ‘The British GP has got even better’”

The Dutch have done an amazing job of creating a mad Heineken-fuelled techno festival with orange flares, and the Red Bull Ring has quite a unique feel to it. We’ve got many strong ingredients and the way for us to go is to create an even bigger festival feel to our grand prix. We’ve got lots of people who are camping already.”

The festival vibe is the first of two specific targets Pringle has circled to raise the game at the British GP, specifically from 2023. Music has been a tradition since Eddie Jordan gathered celebrity mates to play ramshackle ‘gigs’ after races in the 1990s, with the odd driver making a cringe-inducing guest appearance. This year a line-up of bands will play at the end of each day, yet they are hardly household names. But next year that’s precisely what Pringle wants on the Thursday before the race action starts.

“We want to feed it into the weekend in a way that doesn’t overshadow the racing,” Pringle explains. “I do not want to alienate our core audience. I want them to say, ‘Bloody hell, the British GP has got even better.’ Now, we don’t know how to do that because we’re plodding, 50-something, deck-shoe wearing BRDC types… so we are joining forces with a really credible guy from the music business, Jamie Scott, who is the most famous songwriter you’ve never heard of.”

Scott is an Ivor Novello Award-winning songwriter who was responsible for many of the hits produced by boy band One Direction, and has a list of credits that include Justin

Bieber, Ed Sheeran and Rag’n’Bone Man. “He’s also an absolute petrolhead and has reached a stage in his professional journey where he quite fancies another project. By collaborating we can raise the level and that is how we are going to create a very British Super Bowl for F1. That’s what we learnt from Miami: it doesn’t have to be American.”

His second target is more worthy and also essential for Silverstone to remain viable as an F1 venue. “F1 set their stall out on sustainability and want the championship to be net-zero by 2030 – a very punchy target,” says Pringle. “Of those they work with, I want Silverstone to be absolutely the top of the list from a sustainability point of view. We have a massive advantage built in, namely that seven out of 10 teams and all of F1’s broadcast equipment can be put on the back of a lorry rather than a long-haul flight to get here.

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Silverstone’s 197-room Hilton Garden Inn Hotel is due to be completed in summer, with views of the starting grid.

“The BRDC takes its responsibilities to British motor sport very seriously and there are people in society who will question what on earth is going on here today,” he adds, nodding towards the track day outside. “Why are those cars going around in circles today, on a Monday? We know they are producing a tiny amount of CO2 compared with five minutes on the inside lane of one junction of the M25 in rush-hour – but there is a perception problem about us burning fossil fuels. So what are we going to do about it?”

The answer is partly on the roof of The Wing. “We’ve fit solar panels to produce just under a megawatt of power. The Wing will be a net-zero building. Very nearly 15% of our total annual energy requirement will be generated on-site, and 15% of our total annual requirement is enough to power this business for 85% of the time, because our demand is very peaky based around events. F1 will not reach net zero unless people like us make the effort to support them and I absolutely want to be the exemplar.”

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New, easy access points for visitors

He knows only too well this is thorny territory, littered with potential pitfalls of hypocrisy. “We’ve got some challenges, principally that we are not served by public transport for major public events,” he acknowledges. “But when you have got 40,000 people camping that massively cuts down the carbon because they come in once and stay for three to four days. Next year we will offer customers the chance to carbon off-set their journey, as you can when you book a budget airline flight. We already put on a massive park and ride operation – 238 double-decker buses rented last year to ship people in. We are looking to make those buses electric rather than diesel as soon as we can, and we are changing our site vehicles to electric and have chargers going in. All of our PPA [power purchase agreement] will be green-sourced by spring next year, and hopefully locally sourced. I’m really serious about making a big difference. If we get it right I will still be able to come to the VSCC meeting, as will my son and his children after him. If we get it wrong we’ll be stamped out.”

There’s a lot of talk right now about the pressure on the F1 calendar: how many more races can be added to an already bulging schedule of 22? Are the Monacos, Silverstones, Spas and Monzas safe, as demand from new or returning venues increases? Pringle is well placed to judge how his race stacks up, in his role as chair of the Formula One Promoters’ Association which represents “about two-thirds” of the races on the calendar. Again, there’s no complacency.

“We have our deal until 2024,” he says.

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Silverstone aims to bring a British slant to the pizzazz of American F1 races – so expect Scampton’s finest to remain a part of the plan

“The pressure is ever present and that has always been the case. I will never relax on that front, it’s always a cause for concern. All we can do is work our socks off, try to produce the best product and do what F1 wants.”

He’s never seen a demand for F1 quite like Silverstone has experienced since Covid. “Our fans were so supportive,” he says. “Seventy per cent of them rolled their tickets over from 2020 to 2021, so we only had a small number available for 2021 and then sold out. That pent-up demand has changed the buying behaviour of the fans. People came home from 2021 and in the first 24 hours we sold 80% capacity for two stands. We sold Sunday out by January and Saturday by April. I’m told by my colleagues in other sports that once you get to that status, provided your fanbase is big enough, you should be able to maintain it.”

During the Ecclestone years, Silverstone usually made a loss on the grand prix. But finally, under the current deal, Pringle confirms the race makes a profit for the circuit.

“It is nice after years of hard graft to actually feel the wind in our sails”

So running the British GP is now sustainable, as long as a similar deal can be struck beyond 2024? “With the level of support F1 racing is generating at the current time, yes. But it only works if we give the customers good value because the tickets are very expensive – because the fees for hosting it are very expensive. There’s a margin for us if we get it right, which gets reinvested back into the circuit for the good of F1. There’s also the importance of the TV contract, sponsorship and the [VIP] Paddock Club. We are right up there among the most popular Paddock Clubs, certainly in terms of requests, and we are hugely important to sponsors and broadcasters. It is so nice after years of hard graft, including 18 months of nerve-jangling Covid, to actually feel the wind in our sails.”

For years, we were used to reporting and reading how Silverstone was second-rate, an embarrassment in comparison to new, shinier circuits around the world. Then again, Bernie Ecclestone had a point. In comparison to what we can see now, it was relatively down at heel, with room for improvement. How refreshing to see, hear and experience the turnaround, and know that the old place is in good hands.

“The BRDC does not take a penny out of Silverstone,” Pringle reiterates. “It puts all of the profit it makes on the British GP back into the circuit, for the good of F1 and British motor sport. I will never take my foot off the throttle when we are heading for the next negotiation.

But I hope it will be recognised we are straining every sinew to give F1 what it wants.”